Author Archives: EGN

Occupation Hazard. Intrinsic Value.

When I met D and her family I fell in love with them.  This was my first caseload of teenage girls as before I had been working with younger children only. Since the moment I arrived at my first home visit I could sense their excitement about getting a young female worker.  D and her sister were living with their father, an older gentleman who was also excited about finally getting a bilingual worker. In a strange turn, this family had welcomed me in and I wanted to honor and reciprocate the feeling. They welcomed me into their home -one of the most unsanitary places I have ever  been in my life.  I had to put aside my roach phobia and ignore all the creatures crawling and flying all around me if I wanted to make this work. They invited me in and offered me a seat. I sat down, discreetly, petrified and tried to ignore the massive pit-bull sniffing me.  I was sure he could smell the adrenaline running through my veins.  I imagined myself in the next episode of when animals attack, but I dared not say anything because I could see how the girls adored him and felt this could be a bonding opportunity. So,  I prayed and hoped that behind the fear, the dog could smell my sincere wish to help this family (this might have not been wise but I did make it through in one piece!). We all sat down in the living room and the family began to communicate, I had a sense that this was the first time they had an opportunity to laugh, tell stories and tease each other. It was a rare moment of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic life. I let this unfold only facilitating their exchange.  In the process I was really able to get a good look into the hearts of this trio. This has made the case so much easier to work with because when all things get dark I remind myself of the people who are behind the chaos and drama, and I pull through.   Since getting this case I have been through hell and back; I’ve had to fail the trial discharge, have been through 4 failed placements, a teenage pregnancy, a subsequent miscarriage and drugs, all in span of nine months. At times I just wanted to give them up, transfer the case or just quit! But somehow we made it through. When the girls have a problem they reach out; when they AWOL they let me know where they are;  The girls are sincere; they do what they say they’re going to do even if it’s not what’s right and they own up to their mistakes. I respect them and they respect me back and amidst all the chaos we keep working together and I never loose hope.  I am confident that even if I don’t achieve the ACS goals, court mandates or the perfect report, the time that I have invested in them and the respect I have given them has planted a seed that hopefully someday will make a difference in figuring out their past life and a better future.

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Letters to my children- First letter.

So just as I thought I had settled into my workload something or someone throws a curb ball and I have to remind my self that this is a learning curve, because really… at times I feel as if I have been doing this for longer than I really have.  When people question what I do or ask why I do it, I find my self trying to put feelings into words…unsuccessfully, and the thoughts that keeps coming back to me, are the faces and impressions of my children, and yes! My children, because as one of my fellow corps member mentioned in one of his posts, they become our children; we take ownership of them until we can get them safely to where they have to be.

So I decided to write letters to my kids, not to share them with them, but for me; to help me put into words what I feel about them; the feelings that come with the person and not the trained worker. My human side, what drives me to do this job.  It’s sort-of like a diary to my children and this is my first letter.

Dear J., 

You are the first child I met from my caseload. I had to travel hours in a windy road on a rainy day, to get to where you were spending your summer. I didn’t know what to expect, the briefing that I had gotten from your case were facts and dates, it wasn’t about you, it was about that one incident that put you in care. I wasn’t sure what I would find. My heart was racing…Would you like me? Would you talk to me?  What did you look like? —And then I saw you, with your big blue eyes and sweet smile, your dirty fingernails, an old sweater and your muddy shoes, I immediately thought you were having fun at camp, getting down and dirty, but little did I know that I later would realize that your mom doesn’t ever notice your dirty fingernails. …. Since that moment, I wanted to take you home with me….adopt you and fill you with all the love and attention that your eyes were craving. You were shy and soft spoken, with a pure soul. Meeting you changed me! Never before had I felt loving someone instantly. You asked me if your mom had moved out of the shelter, you said you wanted to go home, to a home, to a new home.  What kind of 8 year old asks this? You are so young and so aware. I told you she hadn’t moved out yet but that she was working on it and with your premature 8 years of wisdom, you were disappointed. How many times has this happened before? Have you been disappointed many times in the past? I questioned what type of mother you had? The only thing that I knew for sure is that the police found you wandering the streets at night in your diapers at the age of 4. What kind of mom do you have that does not seem to be smitten by such a sweet boy? I didn’t want to judge, but right then and there I knew I was going to have to fight hard to make you happy. We have a long road ahead; I just hope I can be the bridge that will cross you safely to the other sideIn the meantime: Stay strong little boy! 

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One case closed…fourteen to go and counting!

Finally I’m closing my first case, in what is a bittersweet farewell. For one, it’s a sweet moment because I’m proud to see my client got it together and got her kids back, but bitter because I enjoyed working with her and her children and it’s the clients that are left behind, the ones that are giving me grief. In addition to that, once a case is closed another one is transferred and sometimes the new ones are more challenging than the ones already lingering in my caseload and whose challenges I have gotten accustomed to.

The transition is always hard; sometimes I have left the new folders closed for days, procrastinating the start of my relationship with my new family, as if they were characters of a book that by not reading wouldn’t entice me to get tangled in their story. Then reality kicks in, I open the file and make my first contact, putting aside all the judgments that the previous workers have handed me down with the heavy file, and then it happens; I fall in love with the story and begin working diligently to help them write their happy ending. The work is hard, the resources limited, the relationships difficult and the judgments shadows, but if there is one thing that I hang on to, to carry out my days is to not let the experience of others seep into mine and not to let the judgments of others cloud mine; I take what it’s useful and discard the rest, and when the days get really hard, I think of my CC friends whom are also working really hard and holding on to their passion to help families, to make it through their day.

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Comparable pain: my breakthrough.

For the past weeks every time I hit a wall with a case, I kept hearing “move on and keep going.”

Everyone told me that I came to work at a great time because school was off, court was slow, that I was eased into my cases and not thrown in, that I was lucky because my caseload was low (14 families and counting) and that my situation wasn’t so bad. At the end of the day rather than finding solutions and hope, I ended up feeling frustrated and inadequate, I thought I just had to work harder until I could master the job and truly see and feel the advantage I, supposedly, had over my colleagues.

Everyone belittled my frustration by telling me how bad their situation really was: “I’m the one overloaded, you should be thankful, your job is easy” and then sometime in the middle of this crazy month, it hit me; it wasn’t about me being inadequate or getting more comfortable with the work; comparable pain was not the answer, it had nothing to do with my situation and I don’t know how I let it get to me. Suddenly I realized there is a big flaw in the way things are done. I asked around to see how people performed their work and realized that most of the people  swear by “you do what you can and move on”, that’s the way it is because there is just too much to do.  No wonder I was feeling backed up and frustrated, I really want to help my families move on but with the right tools and outlook on life.

This job is not about moving cattle from point A to point B, it’s about being able to support families through tough times and really meeting their needs so that they can move on in the right direction and not get lost on the way. The system asks too much from the workers and the agency, every time I come with new ideas to help in a case I’m struck with the realities of budgets, suspended payments, lack of resources  or simply “we cannot afford for you to spend so much time on this.” I refuse to allow these walls to close in on me, I will keep trying to find alternatives and loopholes and if not now, in the future, I hope I can help the system change.

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The end or the beginning?

The last couple of weeks have been so packed with action that it’s only now that I have the time to sit down and processed all that’s happening. First of all we had our last week of training at children’s corps; Legal Week! The week was amazing but what stuck with us the most was meeting a really cool Family Court Judge who, the very next day after meeting us, happened to be appointed as the new Commissioner of ACS. It was amazing to have had the chance to meet him and listen to his story in such important time in his career, he was very inspiring, real, and tough but above all, human and concerned about the families, so I look forward to following his work at ACS and supporting his efforts to improve and strengthen the child welfare system in New York City.

The week then ended; with our goodbyes, words of encouragement and a lot of good lucks and although we knew we parted knowing that we are all intertwined for life, it was hard to acknowledge that our training time was over and that we were now on our way to face this new world. We left inspired, scared and anxious but still passionate and above all encouraged as we knew we left with a big box of amazing tools to help at-risk families and children get through life.

Now back from home and with the few things that will fit in my tiny but expensive New York apartment. I’m ready to begin!

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Shadowing thoughts

For the last two Fridays I have been going to my agency for shadowing. The experience has been great so far, and has proven to be a very useful tool both to break the ice and to start experimenting with all our training learning points. So far I’m very pleased with my co-workers and especially thankful for the supervisor I got; she has been very open, supportive and straight with me since the very beginning. The first day we met she manifested that she wasn’t too happy with not having been a part of the selection process. She likes to carefully review and interview the people that will join her unit and felt that the decision was somewhat taken out of her hands, but luckily for me after reviewing my application, yet again, a couple of conversations and an informal interview, she sincerely assured me that she felt I was a good match for her team. Thank God!

As far as the actual shadowings go, I was able to do several home visits on both days. Each day I went with a different colleague and both their styles and attitudes towards the job and clients were unique and educational. Going on the home visits gave me the opportunity to put a face to our clients, to understand whom I will be working with and to begin breaking down the anxiety that was building up. After each visit, the one thing that kept popping into my mind was the realization that these were just people; parents and children struggling to hold-on to their families. I felt immediate empathy and concern, as well as a strong urge to simply ask them how they were doing. At times I felt conflicted as I saw a few things that could have been approached in a different way; the Children’s Corps way! But I soon realized that understanding my agency’s culture and doing it my agency’s way is also part of this learning process, and navigating the two is just the first step in asserting my self as a good case worker.

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The protagonists!

Yesterday we had the opportunity to have breakfast with the Commissioner of Administration of Child Services, John Mattingly. It was very inspiring having the chance to hear him talk about the things he has learned in his career and the challenges he has found along the way. He also shared with us what his hopes are for the future in terms of child welfare and the quality and passion of the people running the show, and like often times, the best advice is the simplest, Commissioner Mattingly encouraged us to always be direct and honest with our clients or as he phrased it to “straight talk” to them while always being respectful and sensitive to the issues; and although this words were simple the message was very profound.

Following our breakfast we met two birth parents that had been in the foster care system.  Both visiting parents could not have had two more different stories as for why they entered the system, however they both coincided in one single goal; to improve their situation so that they could get their children back. The opportunity to listen and engage with these incredible women was priceless, for me it was shocking to put a face to our so-called clients: the man and women who can easily be sitting next to you in the subway, or standing in line at the supermarket or at a bank. It felt like another wake up call of just how much we file and label things without any proof, it made me open up mind a little more and reminded me of the importance of being humble. I was inspired and above all hopeful to see that I can be a part of the process of helping people glue their lives back and become even stronger human beings.

Finally today’s visiting speaker was a foster parent, Stephen; with him we got to experience the other side of the coin, that of the people that open their homes to the children and youth that are separated from their birth parents. At often times it seams that this might be the hardest job; foster parents are labeled in so many negative ways that one forgets that they too are a resource for struggling families and that they are only trying to helps kids ride the storm. Understanding that family is family whether related or non-related is a key piece in becoming a better case worker and helping build stronger foster families.  We felt we learned so much from his experience that it would be impossible to sum up everything; at the end of the day we walked away with a very important quote that I’m sure will be our motto when things get complicated: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at, will change”.

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